After months of early rave reviews and hype over Nicole Kidman's chameleonic performance as Virginia Woolf, The Hours finally begins its wide release this week. Director Steven Daldry (Billy Elliott) is already earning nominations and awards from various film organizations for his adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which weaves the lives of three women together into a story about melancholy, despair, insanity, suicide, and the meaning of life.

Virginia Woolf's depression and disillusionment influenced the tone of her novel Mrs. Dalloway, published in the 1920s. The Hours follows the stories of two other women who relate powerfully to Mrs. Dalloway's angst and loneliness. One is a troubled housewife (Julianne Moore) in 1949. In a present-day plot, the other (Meryl Streep) cares for her friend, a famous author (Ed Harris) dying of AIDS.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "One of the things I like most about The Hours (and there is much to admire) is how it deals with the issue of mental illness. So many films take the side of the person suffering or the side of family and friends who have to deal with the sufferer. The Hours portrays both. We see the agony of a person who can't seem to find the will to live, but we also see what that does to friends, spouses, and children. … There is a compelling plot, beautiful imagery, and some of the best acting you'll see all year."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Although I was intrigued by several of the thought-provoking issues raised in this movie—and there's no question that it was beautifully done—I was disappointed that it was so sad, depressing, and disturbing." She describes the film as deliberately deceitful, "luring" audiences with big name stars and then betraying them by telling a story about homosexuals. "People tend to spend their money on movies that have big name talent carrying them, because there's a certain trust factor that goes with a star and the movies they choose. These days, that trust factor seems to be diminishing." (Should it really be taboo for films to tell stories about homosexuals?)

Movieguide's critic says, "The Hours will undoubtedly win numerous awards for writing, direction and acting, but most viewers probably will be bored to tears or sleep. This pretentious movie has a very strong secular humanist worldview. A relationship with God isn't even considered. The only solutions it offers to the triviality and meaninglessness of the characters' lives are personal selfishness at the expense of others, suicide, or living for moments of affection."

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Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls it "a thoughtful and disturbing contemplation about people in crisis, but the film's indulgent attitude toward the choices they make poses a moral problem for viewers."

Mainstream critics are divided, some enjoying the poetry of the film's style while others are calling it pretentious and bemoaning the "hours" lost. (Time magazine's critic even called it "the Worst Film of the Year.") David Denby (New Yorker) says, "The movie has to overcome an over-all morbidity and Philip Glass's music, as well as its fractured time sequence, and, amazingly, it does— it sails through. [It] is a lovely, serious work that should find a larger audience than this kind of literary movie usually does. The twin themes of The Hours are the variety of human bonds, especially the bond of love, and the gift that the dying make to the living. The miracle is that such somber notions fit together as surely and lightly as the dancers in a Balanchine ballet."


Chicago, the popular Broadway show, is now a flash-and-glitter big screen show starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, and John C. Reilly. It's being heralded as the return of the old-fashioned movie musical. (Last year's thrilling Moulin Rouge was hardly old-fashioned.) Set in the 1920s, jazz club scene, it explores America's obsession with immoral celebrities, gossip, and the way that money gets in the way of justice.

Roxie (Zellweger) is a young blonde amateur with a lust for the spotlight. She idolizes Velma (Zeta-Jones), a dancing singing superstar. When both end up in jail for violent crimes, a clever and dirty lawyer (Gere) begins manipulating them, using the press to glamorize them and to whitewash their crime stories. Viewers will undoubtedly think of recent celebrity trials. Against all odds, the lawyer proves that a big show can hide an obvious lie, and that the American public is happy to let people get away with murder as long as they are treated to a spectacularly sordid drama of headlines.

Director Rob Marshall (TV's Cinderella) and screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) make this an energetic ride that perfectly blends stage-show dance numbers with images that could only happen on the screen. The leads provide a big, bold, enthusiastic performances.

Nevertheless, while Chicago is clearly intended as a satire of our scandal-hungry culture, the whole production seems reluctant to suggest that there is anything really wrong with the behavior of the characters. The willful depravity of these losers is celebrated and treated far too lightly. The one halfway noble person in the bunch is abused, manipulated, scoffed at, and ignored: Roxie's simple-minded, compassionate husband (John C. Reilly) calls himself "Mr. Cellophane" because people look right through him. Instead of leaving us in admiration of his compassion, the film tramples him and leaves him in its dust. This is as dark and cynical as comedies get. While all of this mirrors unpleasant realities—it is easy to see parallels going on in the news even now—I found that the film has a tone that suggests this is just the way life is, and we may as well enjoy the ride. No thank you.

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Amanda Caldwell (The Film Forum) is also troubled by the film. "Chicago confuses our sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and then it goes even further. The crowd is there precisely because she's a scandal, and they applaud and pay her, thereby endorsing her crime, indirectly. We, too, paid money to see a show about a murderess, and we're enjoying the whole song and dance. It's hard to know what to make of this, whether we're supposed to be disgusted with ourselves … [or] give in gladly (or resignedly or thoughtfully) to the sensationalistic bent of human nature."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "This may not be the cast that would immediately jump to one's mind when thinking musical theater but thanks to some judicious editing they are surprisingly effective. This is not a musical like My Fair Lady or Singin' in the Rain. It is highly sexual and sensual, featuring elements which speak to the baser instincts of man: greed, lust, backbiting, and of course, fame."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "The story was depressing and sort of a sad commentary on women. Save your money and your time. There are too many other good movies to go see." Lisa A. Rice (Movieguide) says, "The biggest problem … is its worldview." Likewise, Bob Nusser (Preview) says, "The film has a naughty tone and a casual attitude toward adultery, sex and morals in general."

Mainstream critics are heralding the film as one of the year's best, and many are predicting it will become the front-runner for the year's Best Picture Oscar. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "The movie doesn't update the musical so much as bring it to a high electric streamlined gloss. Marshall … paces the film with gusto. It's not all breakneck production numbers, but it's never far from one. There are a few moments of straight pathos … but for the most part the film runs on solid-gold cynicism. The movie is big, brassy fun."

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In writer/director Joe Carnahan's debut film Narc, the death of an undercover narcotics officer leads to an investigation by two temperamental and troubled cops. Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) has been suspended due to his involvement in a tragic shooting. But his expertise in a tough neighborhood provokes the Detroit police to reassign him as partner to Detective Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). Tellis and Oak force their way into one dark corner after another, interrogating and bullying their way to the truth. When it starts rising to the surface, Tellis realizes that his life might be in greater jeopardy than he initially suspected.

Know this before you go: Narc is an extremely violent movie. The first 15 minutes contain only a few shots fired, but the nature of the violence is so intense that the person sitting next to me compared it to how he felt after watching Saving Private Ryan's opening onslaught. The story itself is more complex than your typical episode of NYPD Blue; fragmented flashback scenes tease the audience with clues, and some sections show what a cop thinks happened instead of what really happened. But there are also plenty of clichés—the angry wife berating her policeman husband because of the demands of his job, and of course, she's holding a crying baby. Must this be the case in every film about cops?

The film is an excellent showcase of the actors' talents. Ray Liotta gives what may be his finest performance as the reckless, emotional, haunted detective. As an exploration of muddy morality along the lines of L.A. Confidential, the film offers some challenging situations: the farther Tellis's investigation goes, the harder it is for him to know the right move from the wrong one. The lesson seems to be this: The truth of a matter is hard to discern—patience, restraint, and wisdom are essential before casting judgment or using a pistol.

Unfortunately, the interesting questions at the heart of the film are buried under noise, chaos, and scenes designed to shock and horrify. I have no problem with movies about narcotics cops, and I expect such movies to be violent. But sometimes it seems a director tries to pack in as much harsh footage as an R-rating will allow for its own sake. That itself is a violent act, and the audience is the victim. It distracts from our comprehension of the story and leaves us battered and beaten instead of reflective.

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Movieguide says, "Narc is a powerful, provocative police thriller. It compares favorably to such movies as The French Connection and Serpico. Patric and Liotta give exceptional performances in a somewhat hyperactive, sometimes confusing story." But the reviewer ends up objecting to the film because of its violence and harsh language.

"Narc held my attention about 2/3 of the way through," says Marie Asner (Phantom Tollbooth), "and then the script went downhill. Up to that point, there was sparse dialogue, with the audience piecing things together. The film held your attention. Then, the writer apparently thought the audience wasn't getting it and began putting in long speeches of why this or that happened. Definitely not needed."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a gritty morality tale exploring the tenuous boundary separating justice from vengeance and the hazards posed by blurring the distinctions between the two. Carnahan has created a morally ambiguous world where objective 'good' and 'evil' are relegated to dangerous luxuries, currencies with little street value. Despite the film's relativistic tone, the climax does pronounce a judgment, though it is more reflective of a Greek tragedy where the Fates exact a price for some character's fatal flaw, rather than offer a spirit of Christian redemption."


Roberto Benigni, who charmed audiences around the world with his bittersweet comedy about the Holocaust Life is Beautiful, is back with a live action version of Pinocchio. As strange as it may seem, even the children in the story are played by adults. But almost every critic reviewing the U.S. version of the film is even more upset about sloppy dubbing into English.

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "The staging is lush. The costumes lavish. The mood magical. But I must admit I had a hard time getting past the image of a 50-year-old playing a precocious puppet-boy."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says it "comes nowhere near the charm of Disney's 1940 animated classic. [It] comes off as a vanity production. There really is no excuse for such a poor lip-sync when the film is the most expensive Italian production ever made. Children may enjoy the puppet's many misadventures and the themes of honesty, loyalty and goodness are there to be sure. But for all of Benigni's frantic running around, the story lags and the humor is minimal."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "It turns out that Benigni comes across as neither charming nor boyishly playful. Annoying is the most fitting adjective that comes to mind. All in all, the entire production is, at best, a cultural miscalculation on the part of Benigni … a bad film and artistic embarrassment for those involved.  It is a real pity because there are wonderful messages of biblical significance woven into the story itself."

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Movieguide's critic is more offended by the film's inclusion of magic than by bad lip-syncing. The reviewer says, "Though plenty of moral lessons are taught, the movie's worldview is slightly nominalistic, suggesting that lesser supernatural beings, people, and magical puppets can manipulate reality."


In Philips Noyce's second remarkable film of the season, Rabbit-Proof Fence, three aboriginal girls escape from the government and religious officials who took them from their homes. They then set out on a 1,200-mile trek on foot, following the line of a "rabbit-proof fence" trying to find their way home.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "Noyce deserts his usual Hollywood action fare to tell the story of the Australian government's campaign to eliminate "half castes"—Aborigines of mixed blood. Spurning sentimentality, he delivers a riveting story of perseverance and courage that is almost unbelievable were it not based on the book by one of the surviving girl's daughters, Doris Pilkington Garimara. Technically, the roving camera, point-of-view photography, and mournful sound and music effects all add to the haunting quality of a movie that will resonate long after its unforgettable final scene."

Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) calls it one of the year's best. "The film is a highly effective escape drama celebrating the human spirit. While a more subtle filmmaker may have fleshed out the various character types along the way, this is a politically and morally enflamed movie which generates a great deal of narrative momentum. Like its determined child protagonists, it knows exactly where it's going and never falters."

Movieguide's critic calls it "a beautifully filmed, heartwarming story," but objects to the film's portrayal of pagan aspects of Aboriginal culture, and to the portrayal of the Christians involved in this breakup of families as "deluded."

Still Cooking

A new review of Julie Taymor's film about Frida Kahlo has just been posted at Books and Culture. Jeff M. Sellers writes, "The tension between victimization and overcoming reverberated throughout Kahlo's life, and the trap before biopic-makers is to err on one side or the other—to portray her as either utterly pathetic or overly triumphant. Frida is self-conscious about the tension but fails to keep it taut."

Next week:Just Married, Love Liza, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and more.

Also appearing on our site today:Film Forum Bonus: The Best Films of 2002